In this article published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, mental imagery is defined as:

…the experience of conscious contents that possesses sensory properties and therefore resembles actual perceptual experience. The perceptual properties can be visual but can also cover other sensory modalities such as tactile, acoustic, or somatic experience. In contrast to cognitions, mental images are not purely verbal or abstract.

In other words, we see, hear, or feel something without the presence of the corresponding external stimuli.

Not surprisingly, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder deal with mental imagery a lot. Some examples include vivid intrusive thoughts, inner voices warning you of some impending danger, or actually feeling dirty when you’re not. Because OCD manifests itself differently in each person, there is no limit to the types of mental imagery that might be experienced.

Because I write about OCD, a disorder that I don’t have, I’m always trying to understand it. What does it really feel like? I’ve learned that the thoughts of those who have OCD are typically no different from the thoughts we all have at times. What differs is the intensity of the thoughts as well as the weight given to them. But what about mental imagery? How can I possibly relate to that?

Well, after reading the article referenced above, I now realize that most of us, whether we have a brain disorder or not, experience mental imagery. Again, it is likely the intensity and vividness of the imagery that varies. In fact, the article states that intrusive mental images lie on a continuum with hallucinations on the far end. Also, it is important to note that mental imagery can either be unwanted or voluntary. So while someone with hit-and-run OCD might clearly envision hitting someone when they haven’t, the same person could possibly conjure up a clear mental image of something that brings them joy, such as the birth of their child. I’m not talking about just “remembering,” but rather vivid mental imagery that evokes our senses. While the first example is an involuntary mental image which likely leads to feeling anxious, the second example might bring about feelings of warmth and love. I think many of us, whether we have OCD or not, can relate to this in the context of our own experiences. I know I can. The article says:

…if we remember how we met our loved one, we sometimes see a visual image of how we first met them and this visual image can be accompanied by intense positive emotions. Similarly, we may vividly remember how it hurt when we were beat up in the school yard and again this tactile image may come with intense negative emotions.

If you’re interested in learning more about mental imagery and how it relates to brain disorders, I recommend reading the article, which goes into more detail and also discusses a couple of studies. Once again, I’m thankful for researchers who work so hard to uncover the mysteries of OCD and other brain disorders.